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Ana Marta González, Researcher at project 'Emotional culture and identity' and professor at department of Philosophy.

What do we want when we want family?

Thu, 04 Jun 2015 13:56:00 +0000 Published in Our Time (nº687)

For some decades now there has been an ideal consensus on the goodness of the family, even though there is no consensus on its reality. The family - or perhaps an aspect of it - persists idealized in the collective imagination, despite the fact that more and more people live alone, at least in Western societies; and despite the fact that we hear more and more frequently of cases of domestic violence that challenge and erode this ideal.

In their now classic book Emotional Control in American History, Peter and Carol Stearns referred to the family ideal generated at framework during the industrial revolution, which still gravitates in our minds today, according to which the family would be a safe "refuge" in the face of a hostile (working) world.

This ironclad division between family and work, unknown until then, meant that the world of work was understood as the realm of efficient rationality, while the family was a community of love and solidarity. This had not always been the case, especially as far as love was concerned. However, the description of the family as a community of solidarity between people united by ties of kinship applies both to the nuclear family - predominant in industrialized societies - and to extended families - typical of traditional and primitive societies - which are the subject of social anthropology.

Undoubtedly, our social reality has been transformed since then, and, as sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild has illustrated in various works, so have the relationships between work and family. However, despite all the changes brought about by the twentieth century, or perhaps precisely because of them, the fact remains that the modern individual - more individual than ever - cannot and will not renounce the family. The question lies in clarifying the nature of that which he does not want to renounce. Perhaps what weighs most heavily in our positive evaluation of the family is the recognition of it as a place where secure and lasting bonds are forged that sustain our identity throughout life.

However, this intuition - challenged by the objectivity of blood ties - is threatened by the fragility with which we are presented today with ties that no longer depend on blood, but on freedom, but which are at the very origin of the family. The fact that instead of marriage commitment, what Anthony Giddens calls "pure relationship" has flourished explains this fragility, since we are talking about a form of relationship that, without any institutional backing, rests purely and exclusively on the mutual agreement of the parties and therefore lasts as long as love, understood as mere sentiment, lasts. A form of relationship, therefore, which, left to itself, is not enough to guarantee a solid, firm and stable community of solidarity, capable of accompanying us throughout our lives.

Now, Richard David Precht is not wrong when he suggests that the current idealization of the family is more an exercise in "will and representation" than a sociologically powerful reality. It is as if, in thinking about the family, we are prey to an idealization, according to which we only want to retain the pleasant aspects of relationships. Zygmunt Bauman points to this when he refers to the multitude of men and women, our contemporaries, "desperate to feel easily disposable and left to their own devices, always eager for the security of togetherness and a helping hand to count on in bad times, that is, desperate for relationships," but who, "nevertheless, are wary all the time of being related and particularly of being related forever, because they fear that it may become a burden and severely limit the freedom they need to relate.

Swimming and clothing storage. Autonomy and security. Freedom and recognition: these are the poles that make up the spontaneous experience of love and yet they clash like enemies as soon as we try to reconcile them only by negotiation. To make that experience of love a bond-generating source , we must realize the meaning of that emotion and secure it with a twist of the screw. This requires trust: a relational asset of which we are particularly in need today.